Ski Building 101
A chat with Eric Hegreness of Iris Skis and his vision for the future of independent ski building
In an industry controlled by huge companies owned by even larger companies that sometimes have nothing to do with skiing, what place does a tiny company have that hand-builds every pair of its skis? Eric Hegreness, owner and designer at Iris Skis, figured it would take patience, motivation, and a huge amount of creativity, and set out three years ago to find a definitive answer to that question.
Core roots and adaptation
Hegreness grew up skiing the molehills of Ohio, frequenting a local ski shop and learning what it meant to be a freeskier with the likes of now-pro skiers Brody Leven, the late Matt Heffernan, Kyle Decker, and a handful of others. This was in the days when working at a shop meant skiing as much as possible, setting up backyard railjams with a bunch of fake snow and grass landings, and fantasizing about moving to the big mountains out West to live the dream. There is always the cliché of being “core” in a sport still considered fringe by many, but Hegreness brushes off that image, believing that to be successful one must be true to the sports roots but adaptable to where the industry is heading.
His college years were spent working at the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Center, an innovative outdoor ski hill with an artificial snow surface in western Viriginia. Being part of such an unconventional project set him up with many of the skills he needed to make it on his own in the ski world. Once moving to Boulder in 2012, Hegreness landed a job as lead tech at the busiest ski repair shop in town, tuning over 100 pairs of skis a day by hand, allowing him to perfect his ski tuning technique and gain inspiration from the hundreds of different ski designs that passed through.
In 2012, Hegreness stumbled across a trove of old ski-building equipment, including enough raw material to start pressing several pairs of skis right away. Experience pressing skateboard decks during his time in college allowed him to quickly get his system up and running. Selling skate decks under the moniker Kalmia Boards provided some easy income and a way to spread the word on his operation. In addition to the ski press, he built a CNC router from scratch to cut out ski cores and topsheets. However, finding a place to keep all his equipment and a pickup truck-sized press and vacuum table proved challenging in Boulder, with its high rent and strict zoning laws. For its first two years, Iris Skis was based out of a 150- square- foot garage in downtown Boulder..
Playing among giants
After being forced to move from the garage in early 2015, Hegreness’s dream was left without a home. The growing pains had caught up with him. He was faced with the choice of investing much more time and money into a project that had so far not earned him a penny, or just give it all up. Not someone to simply call it after round one, Hegreness decided to keep going. After all, the initial prototype skis had come out quite well, and had even raised some eyebrows among the local skiing elite.
“Building the first few batches and getting them on people’s feet taught me a few valuable lessons,” says Hegreness, “not just about the skis themselves, but about being a player in such a big game.”
A few months later, Hegreness got lucky when an offer to move into a co-working space came through. He jumped on the opportunity and moved the operation into an empty warehouse in an industrial park outside of Boulder. With more space and access to a whole new set of engineering tools, he could focus on refining his designs and his manufacturing process.
Hegreness toyed with the idea of creating custom skis built to a client’s exact specifications, much like Folsom or Wagner Skis, but realized there was little room for growth in that part of the market. Besides, the overhead costs of producing made-to-order skis were immense, as they would require retooling his machines every time he pressed a new pair of skis. As a one-man team, it made more sense to dedicate his efforts to producing a line of skis that would be perfect every time.
Part of this decision stemmed from a creative spark where Hegreness realized that to be successful, he would have to stand out among giants. Working in a ski shop gave him an insider’s view of what he was up against; small brands don’t make it unless they have something to show for and the perseverance to see their projects through. Colorado alone is home to a number of independent ski manufacturing success stories (see Wagner, Folsom, Icelantic, Meier Skis, Liberty, to name a few), as well as even more failures.
To give an idea of what goes into a typical ski build, Hegreness invited me to come hang out in his new workshop. Housed in a warehouse style co-working lab with a handful of other projects, the space looks clean and professional, not to mention spacious compared to the old digs. Prototype skis and a few skateboard decks line the walls, while a metal shop and a bunch of mystery equipment take up the corners. It is even complete with a working 250cc Piaggio scooter from the 1980s – perfect for running errands.
“Moving in here gave me the chance of a lifetime, a bunch of badass tools, and the inspiration from my coworkers to do what I want,” says Hegreness. He learns something new every day from the people he shares the space with, as they tinker with their pet projects like a metal forge and various computer-manufacturing ventures.
As a skier who spends much of his time in the terrain park, jumping and spinning off rails and booters, Hegreness wanted to build a ski that would be fun to ski anywhere on the mountain but be strong enough to take a beating. He focused his energy on designing the Iris Crossover, a mid-fat all-mountain twin-tip with a flex reminiscent of one his personal favorite skis: the Nordica Soul Rider.
“I love playing with machines, fixing them, using them in creative ways,” says Hegreness. “However, I’m picky with my equipment, and end up building my own machines so they do what I want.”
Creating a pair of skis from scratch requires roughly 10 to 15 hours of work. After the design phase, the ski core must be cut from a sheet of wood by the CNC router, laminated with fiberglass and affixed to a sheet of base material and some sort of structural layer like carbon fiber or titanal (a lightweight aluminum alloy).
Next comes the edge wrap, which Hegreness considers one of the hardest parts of the process. In order for the ski to be durable enough to withstand the forces of a 180-pound skier landing huge airs, the edge material is wrapped from one long strand tip to tail, and back again. Doing this by hand takes extreme precision and patience.
Once the ski’s core is assembled, it must be soaked in epoxy resin and fed into the press. The ski press applies massive amounts of pressure and heat to fuse all the ski’s layers into one, while squeezing out excess epoxy. A pair will sit in the press for a few more hours until it has cooled off. Of course, this means he can only press one pair at a time, severely limiting his production capacity. From here, they must cure for a few more days to ensure the epoxy has fully dried before being tuned, mounted and skied.
Then comes the fun part: testing. Hegreness extensively tests his new creations at mountains all over Colorado, and has set up demo programs with Wolf Creek and other local ski areas. The best way to test a new design is to get it on as many people’s feet as possible and let them ski to their heart’s desire. Feedback from tests has allowed him to refine his designs according to what works or not, as well as to ensure durability.
The final part of the equation is where most indy ski manufacturers fall short: recouping their investment through sales. Hegreness’s experience working in retail has shown him some of the shortcomings of the retail sales model. Large manufacturers can mass-produce equipment and sell it through a middleman—the local ski shop or online retailer. While that model makes sense for large manufacturers who can keep their production costs down, Hegreness can sell his skis at a competitive price, but make nearly twice the money per pair of skis by eliminating the middleman and selling them himself.
To be successful, Hegreness needs to be more than just a ski manufacturer. He knows that he must compete with online consumer-direct sales models that other independent companies employ. However, he wants to keep the customer experience personal, interacting directly with skiers through a brick-and-mortar storefront.
“If someone wants to come in and wax their skis, they should be able to do that,” says Hegreness, “It’s a messy process that you can’t just do in your living room, and a simple service like that would vastly improve my customer’s ski days.”
The dream is to create a local store that changes the way we interact with the ski industry. He envisions selling his own product, tuning skis on the spot, and providing a space for customers to learn to maintain their own equipment. Think free wax bench and membership-based classes on ski tuning, much like a bicycle co-op or a farm share. This is still a few seasons down the road, but Hegreness is optimistic that he may have finally found the cure to the common ski shop.